Kowalski (Barry Newman) makes his living driving cars for delivery across the U.S.A. One night, he makes a bet with his drug dealer friend that he can drive from Denver, Colorado to San Francisco in under twenty four hours, but along the way he attracts the unwelcome attention of the police. His hazardous driving makes him a wanted man, and soon he is being chased at high speeds along the desert highways all the while becoming a hero of the people who thought heroes were a thing of the past...
Yet another film from a big studio designed to appeal to any counterculture leanings in young people after Easy Rider was a hit, epic hippy hangover flick Vanishing Point was scripted by Guillermo Cain (a pseudonym for a Cuban film critic whose previous credit had been Brit cult flick Wonderwall). The film stakes out its territory early on, with a sequence showing Kowalski in his supercharged, white 1970 Dodge Challenger being forced to flee from a police roadblock and mysteriously disappearing - it's all vaguely meaningful and exciting to watch at the same time.
After this we go back to see the start of the chase, where Kowalski arrives to pick up a new car, despite having been awake for hours, and takes speed (appropriately) in preparation for his marathon drive. The car chase sequences, and John A. Alonzo's photography in general, are terrific, brimming with energy as stunt driver Carey Loftin takes the wheel of the Challenger as it charges across the roads, through the countryside and finally out into the desert as he tries to escape the cops, who all the while are being strewn like debris in Kowalski's wake.
Although the cops are depicted as dumb rednecks, not a sympathetic one amongst them, Kowalski does meet up with helpful souls on his journey. All the way, his exploits are commented on by DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little) from a small radio station out in the middle of a isolated smalltown (the townsfolk look as if they'd rather hear Patsy Cline than the DJ's blues rock) - our hero builds a spiritual link with him that means they can hold a conversation as long as the radio is playing. Kowalski is aided by a rattlesnake collector (Dean Jagger) in Death Valley, and a biker as he nears the end of his adventure, and there are many eccentric characters he crosses paths with, like the foolhardy racer, the preacher at a revivalist meeting, or the two gay criminals (who push a broken down car with "Just Married" written on the back).
But what of Kowalski himself? What makes him so cool? Well, not too much, to be honest. Flashbacks to his past reveal him as a troubled soul, a Vietnam War veteran, an ex-cop who was repelled by the corruption, a banned racing driver, and a heartbroken man whose girlfriend has drowned in a surfing accident. All this seems too calculated in its attempt to appeal to the widest variety of viewers, be they square and disillusioned or hip and looking for a champion. Everyone he meets seems to see what they want in him, be that a friend on the road, someone to exploit, or an enemy to be conquered, lending the character his "between the lines" persona throughout.
As played by Newman, Kowalski has no personality that you'd notice, he's the strong silent type who is afforded the occasional flash of humour or compassion. In fact it's the car that's cool, that Dodge Challenger bulleting across the screen, performing amazing stunt moves, is the true hero of the piece. Kowalski is a man whose only meaning in life has become the chase, and when he has nowhere left to excape to, he reaches the conclusion he has nothing left to live for - and he won't give the cops the satisfaction of catching him. But what has he achieved? His final act looks like an futile gesture. Plus, he trashes the car. Remade for TV in 1997, and if you see the British edit, Charlotte Rampling shows up as a stoned hitcher in a late on scene that proves an eerie foreshadowing of Kowalski's ultimate fate. Rock band Primal Scream loved the movie, but didn't like the music (which includes Delaney and Bonnie in person), so wrote their own soundtrack with the concept album named after it, which is worth a listen.